Have you been keeping tabs on the number of Souls-inspired Action RPG games released in the last decade? No one, myself included, would blame you if you haven’t; in an industry as versatile and as malleable as it is, if one constant remains true over the past decade, it’s that inspirations and outright imitators alike of FromSoftware’s aspired formula have come and gone. On top of a community quick to coin anything in as quick and as recognizable a name, it needn’t take long to look at a user interface, overarching style of combat and emphasis on its budding world-building lore to brandish the trustee “Souls-like” tag and call it a day.
And yes, it’s hard not to deny that From’s dark fantasy fables genuinely tapped into something at the turn of the 2010s. But the greater intrigue is whether or not — regardless of subtlety or blatant obviousness by contrast — anyone else could do what Souls started. Greater still, not so much duplicating the experience, but enhancing it more so. Needless to say it’s been a struggle to remember many names the past few years (let alone across an entire decade) that’ve provided their own interesting spin on the well-known, well-beloved and well-worn template, mechanically or otherwise. Perhaps a consequence of relying too heavily on those singular inspirations. And perhaps more so, consolidating in that same, familiar setting of foreboding, oppressive circumstances.
Something which, from the off, immediately grants a game like The Last Hero of Nostalgaia an ounce of novelty and appeal. A more light-hearted delivery and at times, attempt at a parodying deconstruction of the formula. A game that gets off to a witty and comical start with not one but two gags. An immediate interrupting of a wise-sounding aged narrator fittingly and solitarily referred to as The Narrator throughout. His attempt at an ominously mood-setting introduction barely lasting a few seconds. So too, a gag concerning the character creator screen; regardless of how much time one spends with the menu’s numerous sliders, your stickman-like protagonist remains looking the exact same. Moments later, the pixelated, ruinous world of Nostalgaia manifests and you’re off. A heavily-pixellated patchwork of environments themselves deteriorating and on the edge of oblivion unless you do something about it.
Which of course requires taking down a set number of main bosses in each locale, chatting with some recurring NPCs along the way and stumbling upon a few helpful weapons and items as a bonus. Anyone who’s played a Souls game — let alone From’s own back catalogue — will immediately recognize the usual formalities. Not to say that The Last Hero of Nostalgia isn’t competent or lacking genuine deduction in working out its labyrinthine world and multi-level, shortcut-savvy surroundings. Let alone its increasingly more perilous slew of enemies dotted about the world before one takes that umpteenth step forward to challenge a story-critical boss. While it may not entirely be original on structure and progression, the game does prove it knows what it’s doing. Or at least has done its homework; successfully administering that same dopamine-like hit at just the right time when a new bonfire — or in this case, a “beacon” — is reached or a valuable short-cut is unlocked.
Perhaps the biggest plus the game has going for itself is the fact The Last Hero of Nostalgaia doesn’t take itself too seriously throughout. Blatantly obvious a fact that may sound on the basis of this being a more light-hearted iteration of the Souls formula, the game isn’t shy at poking fun at its own premise and of the tropes now established in this sub-genre. So it’s in the writing and overall narrative where one would hope the game finds the means to take that pivotal next step in proving itself an easy recommendation for Souls veterans looking for a refreshing take. Sadly The Last Hero of Nostalgaia doesn’t quite get it right when it comes to both writing and indeed the execution of its intended antics. While the passive-aggressive attitude The Narrator takes throughout one’s journey at ridiculing your stickman protagonist, may have started well, it’s a means of witty humor that unfortunately wears out its relatively scarce appeal. Saved in part by a few scattered examples that do admittedly garner a chuckle or two: one involving randomly spawning an aesthetically out-of-place train onto a narrow bridge, another having one of the NPC get into an argument with said narrator for a brief and fortunately not overplayed period.
Unfortunately what genuine laughs and good spots of writing here are overshadowed by those that aren’t necessarily bad by comparison, but more so don’t fully utilize the premise in a way that makes its overall narrative one to highlight. In short, it’s not enough and if anything, finds the game relying more so on its gameplay to make up for such absence. The best examples at comedy in The Last Hero of Nostalgaia lying (perhaps fitting for such a sub-genre as this) more so in its world design, far devoid of dialogue, when visual gags take over. An interconnecting part of the world map — serving as a half-way point between all the parts of the game — played up as a sort of backstage area for the NPCs to prepare. Messages on its walls telling them to stay in character and remember that they’re disposable fodder — all while corny, corporate musac mumbles through nearby, invisible speakers — one of only a few moments where The Last Hero of Nostalgaia makes great use of its deconstructive parodying intentions.
And that’s not to say that the gameplay/role-playing side doesn’t itself throw up one or two neat ideas along the way. The notable one being the optional objective in getting weapons to “remember” past memories. Which in gameplay terms, means finding the exact spot in the game’s world to evolve said weapon from, for example, its starting 16-bit profile to that of a glossy, high-resolution form with buffed stats and access to a special attack. Aesthetically, it’s a novel expanding on the general narrative on reviving a pixelated world to that of its 3D polygonal form — best exemplified when activating a beacon and causing the surrounding space to increase in visual fidelity. More importantly, though, albeit on a superficial level, it encourages players to retrace their steps, revisit previous regions and expand one’s arsenal. Admittedly, there’ll be at least one or two weapons whose initial attire demands you hunt down its seemingly higher-fidelity variant. Though that’s roughly where the appeal will both start and end, not least when figuring out the correct weapon and spot feels less like leverly answering a riddle-like conundrum and more a trawl through menus. Made less exciting when a lot of weapons can be unlocked simply by spending enough currency on them.
But again herein lies the unfortunate main gripe with The Last Hero of Nostalga as seen previous with its writing and its intended tone. Amicable these ideas may seem, they’re simply not as fleshed out as one would hope, interesting a starting point they do provide. The well of options and those you’re likely to properly get to grips, ultimately thinner than one would expect. Few of its weapons, not to mention its unlocked special attacks, coming across as tempting enough to pursue. Some neat references and call-backs to iconic series aside — an unexpected Dead Space reference, one to highlight alongside more obvious nods like that of The Legend of Zelda. Despite this, it’s hard to get fully invested in varied character builds when most play-styles inevitably wind up filtering back into the traditional melee-focused strength or dexterity classes. And while there is a “magic” of sorts in this game — dubbed “Source” — it’s clear that players often choosing to play the role of sorcerer or healer, may feel left out here.
In the end, the moment-to-moment combat does pull through to sufficient ends. Even if what The Last Hero of Nostalgaia offers up is ironically more nostalgically-glazed than its heavily-referential surroundings would imply. Which for the most part is no bad thing, thanks to the game’s knowledge in tripping the player up at just the right time. Much like its spacing out of beacons and opportune avenues to go down (at the risk of losing all of one’s currency) the combination of enemy attack patterns, offensive capabilities and that cunning use of out-of-shot mobs to ambush you, are positioned at just the right spots and scaled accordingly to keep one’s progression from feeling dull. If not entirely original, it’s a welcome-enough reminder that for all its joking about, the game isn’t afraid to pose a challenge and a test when it matters.
On providing a premise far removed from the regularly harrowing and oppressive tone we’re used to, you can’t fault developer Over the Moon Games’ more satirical intentions. And while not without minor misfires and punchlines that don’t stick the landing, there’s plenty of wit beyond simply its spoken dialogue to make claim that a parody of the sub-genre, can be just as viable as the sub-genre itself. Let down on occasion by a combat and progression system it may be — competently built and cunningly orchestrated it remains for the most part, similarly lacking in that same depth where it matters. Refreshing if sadly not as fleshed out as one would wish, The Last Hero of Nostalgaia does still provide enough of a charm and a challenge alike for Souls veterans looking for a new take on the formula.